Planning a Trip to Sri Lanka: Everything You Need to Know
So you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka, yay! Here’s everything you need to know before travelling, including destinations to include in your itinerary, and a packing list. Read on for all the information you need to plan an incredible trip to an amazing country.
- Population: 22 million
- Official Language: Tamil and Sinhalese (Tamil is spoken by minority groups – around 15% of the population)
- Currency: Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR – totally different currency to the Indian rupee!)
- Capital City: Colombo
Helpful Phrases (in Sinhalese):
- Hello: Ayobowan
- Goodbye: gihin ennam
- Thank you: Istuti
- Yes: Ow
- No: Naa
Climate and When to Go:
Sri Lanka has two monsoons, meaning that there’s always one side of the island with great weather and one side with heavy rainfall and storms. The south-western monsoon lasts from May to September and brings heavy rain to the South-West of Sri Lanka (Colombo, Negombo, Galle, Unawatuna, Mirissa, Yala etc). The dry season is from December to March. The north-eastern monsoon is from October to January, bringing rain to the North-East (Cultural Triangle, Trincomalee, Arugam Bay, Jaffna etc). The dry season is from May to September. Sri Lanka’s peak tourism period is from December to mid-April, when the overall weather is best. Don’t worry about travelling during monsoon season, as usually there will only be heavy rain for a few hours in the morning or afternoon/evening. The exception to this would be when visiting Jaffna and the far North, where it’s best to visit in the dry season due to the bad road conditions that are worsened during the monsoon.
Visitors to Sri Lanka need to apply for an ETA online visa via this website. The visa lasts for a stay of up to 30 days (this can be extended when you get to Sri Lanka). Citizens of Singapore, the Maldives and Seychelles are exempt from applying for an ETA.
Suggested Itinerary Inclusions:
- Colombo – most visitors to Colombo don’t seem to like it, but I quite enjoyed my time there and its fairly close to the airport, making it a good first or last destination
- Negombo – a small seaside fishing town, convenient distance to the airport, again making it a good first or last stop
- The Cultural Triangle – the hefty prices sometimes turn people away, but the Cultural Triangle is honestly incredible and a must-see if you’re interested in ancient history. Major sights include Sigiriya, Dambulla, Anuradhapura and Polonnuruwa, choosing one place to stay is a good idea rather than trying to move all over the place – I stayed in Dambulla as it’s centrally located.
- Kandy – the ‘cultural hub’ of Sri Lanka
- Dalhousie/Adam’s Peak – a real bucket list destination, read more here about climbing Adam’s Peak
- Nuwara Eliya – a small English town in the Hill Country, surrounded by beautiful tea plantations. Highlights include visiting Hortons Plains National Park to hike to World’s End.
- Ella – another beautiful town situated in the Hill Country with some beautiful hikes (Ella’s Rock and Little Adam’s Peak). The train between Nuwara Eliya and Ella is said to be one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world, and I totally agree!
- Kataragama/Yala National Park – Kataragama is a unique and fascinating religious town and is the perfect place to stay to visit Yala National Park to spot some of the famous leopards on safari, along with many other exotic animals. Don’t visit Yala during the South Western monsoon (May to September) because it’s unlikely you’ll see many animals. There are plenty of other National Parks to choose from.
- South Coast – turquoise water and golden sandy beaches fringed by palm trees, once you visit the South you’ll never want to leave. I visited Tangalle, Mirissa (great for whale watching) and Unawatuna – all of them are beautiful, just make sure you have enough time to relax on your chosen beach(es). If you want to see turtles head to Bentota or Rekawa.
- East Coast – if you visit during the South Western monsoon (May to September) then head East to soak up the sun. Trincomalee is meant to be exceptionally beautiful and Arugam Bay is renowned for great surfing.
- Jaffna and the North – having only recently opened up for tourism following the years of civil war, this is the perfect area to visit to see the ‘real’, virtually untouched Sri Lanka. The culture is also quite different to the rest of the small island as the North is primarily inhabited by Tamils.
Suggested Packing List:
Besides the basics, here’s a few things you should take with you to Sri Lanka.
- a long skirt or pants – perfect for day to day wear and vital for temple visits
- sarong – great for covering up on the beach (you can also buy beautiful sarongs in Sri Lanka)
- mosquito net – sometimes your guesthouse may not provide a net and trust me it is a necessity
- duct tape – for patching up holes in mosquito nets
- raincoat/umbrella – for the inevitable monsoonal downpour you will get caught in (we bought an umbrella in Sri Lanka only to discover it wasn’t actually waterproof…)
- DEET based mosquito repellent
- read this post to find out what to pack if you’re a woman visiting Sri Lanka
A Brief History..:
Sri Lanka has so many important historical places and events that it would be impossible to write about everything, so here are just a few important details about the island’s background. Sri Lanka is a place of huge religious significance to Buddhists and the island is dotted with places the Buddha visited – like Adam’s Peak where you can see the Buddha’s footprint, or Anuradhapura which is where the Buddha first achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree that is still there today. Sri Lanka has been colonised by Indians, Dutch, Portugese and British, and the influences from each can still be seen today in the food, architecture, religion and culture. More recently, Sri Lanka was affected by a brutal civil war which broke out in 1983 between the Tamil ‘Tigers’ and the Sinhalese. It is estimated that between 80,000-100,000 people died during the war. The conflict finally ended in 2009, but it has taken a long time to heal the scars of the war and the impacts are still noticeable, particularly in the North where most of the fighting took place.
Major Festivals/Public Holidays:
There’s quite literally at least one public holiday a month in Sri Lanka. It’s handy to know when public holidays are as typically the streets will be a bit quieter and restaurants close earlier. It’s also great to see if you’re going to be visiting during an important festival so you can find out what to expect.
- Poya Days (full moon) – once a month on full moon days there is a public holiday. Sri Lankan Buddhists spend the day making offerings at temples and performing other religious activities.
- Thai Pongol (14th/15th January) – a Hindu festival celebrating the sun god Suriya, the bringer of the rains Indra and the cow
- Independence Day (4th February)
- Maha Sivarathri (February/March) – Hindu festival dedicated to Shiva
- Good Friday (March/April)
- Sinhalese and Tamil New Year (April 14th)
- Deepavali (late October/November) – Hindu Festival of Lights (like Diwali in Northern India)
- Christmas (25th December)
Some Helpful Tips:
- Negombo is the closest ‘city’ to Bandaranaike airport, being about 20 minutes away, but Colombo can be reached in about 45 minutes by taxi
- Always arrange a price before getting into a tuk tuk or taxi (or ask for the meter to be turned on). Prices for tuk tuks are around 60LKR per km for locals, so try to barter to around this price.
- Sri Lanka looks small (and it is) but there’s honestly so much to see and do here! The biggest mistake you could make would be to rush your trip. Allow plenty of time in each destination and try to visit for at least 2 weeks. I spent nearly a month here and didn’t get to half the places I wanted to!
- Try out the public transport – it’s tempting to hire a driver for convenience but public transport is where you’ll meet locals and trust me it’s way more fun!
- Pack light, especially if you’re going to be using public transport (buses won’t stop if you have too much luggage)
- Dress respectfully – you can read about how to dress as a woman in Sri Lanka here
- Be patient – this country runs on its own time-frame and sometimes it can be pretty frustrating (especially when you’re train’s 3 hours late and you got told it was 15 minutes behind schedule), just remember to be patient and have a laugh
If you have any more questions, feel free to leave a comment below!